The Info Underground
In bleak Afghan villages, the lure of opium cultivation is clear. With no other viable alternative for farmers, and no real law enforcement from the Afghan police or foreign troops, growing poppies is the only way to feed hungry mouths. Ahmad Ollah has 18 of them to fill. His opium is offered for sale in poppy sheets, embossed on both sides. He's hoping for $40 per kilo for his latest harvest, but despite his pleading, $34 is the best price he can get from the drug baron's envoys.
Mansur Khan is the man behind the offer. A thick set man with a very relaxed air, a tribal ruler with his own personal militia. In fact he employs a staggering 400 men. A gulp of vodka for good luck, and he packs his smugglers off laden with several hundred kilos of Opium on the 500km trek to Iran. Khan considers himself invincible, above the law. "You have no idea how loyal the natives are to us", he says, "even when it comes to a shootout". And there are many of those.
At the start of the journey the river Helmand has to be crossed. "It's not easy to travel aboard a raft with a grenade launcher on your shoulder," grumbles one of the smugglers. At the other side they join a camel caravan, then a vehicle convoy meets them, armed with night vision equipment to travel in the dead of night. In Helmand province, lawlessness abounds.
At an Afghan school, addicts smoke heroin spliffs and encourage youngsters to do the same. "What do you want with that kids' stuff?" goads the addict. "Take something that's really fun". The majority of Afghanistan's growing number of heroin addicts are under twenty. It's a problem that is further destabilising the country by subverting tribal structures and traditions. "Many students are addicted to drugs, or have squandered their money on gambling", laments one teacher. "Where there are functional families the children are needed to work in the fields".
In the Afghan highlands opium is processed into heroin. A car jack serves as a drug press. "This thing works wonders", croons the lab worker. It's a simple production process: pressing, diluting, heating and pressing again until all the liquid runs out. Child's play. And the only gauge of the purity of this deadly sludge is a quick PH test at the end.
On the Iranian side of the border futile tactics are used to block the endless caravans through the mountains. Embankments are built, rivers diverted, pits dug - anything to render the passage impassable. "We have forced the smugglers to do without heavily motorized caravans," boasts one General in the Anti-Drugs Unit. A haul is made and prisoners are taken. Their fate is sealed: with more than five kilos of raw opium on them they will face the death sentence.
Every year a stockpile of seized opium is burnt publicly in Tehran. But the one we see here is a tiny 0.5% of the total opium that left Afghanistan last year - some of it even comes stamped with the drug baron's seal. But as yet there is no clearly defined struggle inside Afghanistan itself to stop the drugs trade. It's economy is still based entirely on drugs.
The director/cinematographer for Afghanistan's Opium Trail is Mehran Bozorgnia, finalist of the Rory Peck award.